Football’s heart still beating strong at FA Cup final time
Football nostalgia is not what it used to be but there were times on Saturday when the Champions League, 120,000 pounds-a-week contracts and “the business of the game” were forgotten in a return to the days when the FA Cup was the only thing that mattered.
As I walked down Wembley Way towards the stadium, the massed Everton fans out to squeeze every last drop from the day brought back memories of countless other sunny Saturdays in May, when everything stopped for the Cup final.
For generations of fans, players and managers, getting to the final was often the pinnacle of their season if not their lives.
For those not lucky enough or too young to attend there was the consolation of hours of build-up and the rarity of a live TV match, followed by hours of re-enacting it all outside with friends.
The stadium has changed since then but that walk from Wembley central underground station, now shadowed by the arch, rather than the twin towers, remains one that every fan should experience at least once.
It was a well-trodden one for Everton fans in the 1980s as they reached four FA Cup finals and also a League Cup decider but things have been lean since then, with their 1995 victory over Manchester United a rare taste of the big time.
The fans were back at the stadium for the semi-final against United last month, but it is not the same thing at all.
Effort and imagination had gone into the design of Everton’s special final T-shirts and banners and there was a terrific atmosphere in and around the ground.
Just as in the semi, Everton’s singing and supporting put to shame the followers of the “Big Four”, for whom a mere FA Cup final, or especially a semi-final, has become small beer.
Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink said he was brought up loving Cup final day – and he was talking about the FA, not Dutch, competition – and there was no disguising his delight at delivering the trophy to Chelsea after a barren spell since the departure of Jose Mourinho.
Chelsea’s fans eventually warmed to the occasion to play their part in an uplifting day and their players, particularly the extraordinary Frank Lampard, gave everything they had in scorching conditions.
At the end, Chelsea’s jubilation and Everton’s desolation merely reminded us of how important the FA Cup is and underlined the anger and frustration felt by so many when it is treated as something of an inconvenience by so many Premier League managers during the season.
PHOTO: Badges are seen on the shirt of an Everton fan prior to their English FA Cup final against Chelsea at Wembley Stadium in London, May 30, 2009. REUTERS/Darren Staples